Let's play some baseball!

Baseball’s back. The cracking sound of the bat hitting the ball or the smacking of the ball in the glove is like music to my ears. As we bid adieu to college basketball tonight (good riddance Joachim Noah and his over-dramatizations), baseball will take the proverbial baton and pick up where March Madness left off, minus the March and minus the madness.

The baseball season began last night as the St. Louis Cardinals took on the New York Mets in a rematch of last year’s National League Championship Series that the Cardinals won on their way to becoming World Series Champions.

For the majority of the league, however, today is opening day, as teams get their first test of whether they have what it takes to become this year’s World Series Champions. They’ll see how their off-season transactions panned out and whether or not their fans have something to be excited about this season.

I’ll tell you right now, if you are a fan of the Washington Nationals, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, or Kansas City Royals, circle the home openers for the Redskins, Buccaneers, and Chiefs. Actually I’ll go one step further and suggest getting a new favorite team. Like the Cubs or the Pirates.

The Pirates played decent baseball in the second half of last season; the problem was they stunk it up at the beginning. As I said last year, they are still a young team, but they will continue to make strides. Their young pitchers struggled at times last year, not playing up to expectations. The big news for the Pirates is the acquisition of first baseman Adam LaRoche from Atlanta. He is expected to bat fourth and provide some much-needed power in the lineup.

National League (NL) batting champion and second baseman Freddy Sanchez has a sore right knee and will start the season on the disabled list. The injury is not serious and Sanchez is expected to be back in the lineup in a week or less.
Two keys for the Pirates this season will be the successes of their lead-off hitter and their closer. Center fielder Chris Duffy is penciled in as the lead-off hitter, but he needs to prove he can consistently get the job done at the top. If he doesn’t get on base regularly, the Pirates’ offense will struggle.

The Pirates gave up closer Mike Gonzalez in order to bring in LaRoche, so the reins have been turned over to Salomon Torres. Torres replaced an injured Gonzalez in September last season and led the league in saves for the month. He will need to brush off his poor spring training performance and get the job done in the ninth inning. The Pirates can’t afford to let wins slip through their fingers, as the demoralizing losses will hurt the young team’s confidence.

The Cubs spent money in the offseason, ignoring the phrase that money can’t buy happiness. They hired Lou Piniella as manager and spent $136 million on an eight-year contract with outfielder Alfonso Soriano. Derrek Lee (he’s healthy again) and Aramis Ramirez will wake up the middle of the batting order and will provide the pop for this team to rise to the top.
The Cubs will again be without Mark Prior and Kerry Wood at the start of the season, but they have actually taken steps this season to win without them by signing Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, a couple of proven starting pitchers.

St. Louis’s Albert Pujols returns as arguably the best player in baseball. He edges Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, Minnesota pitcher Johan Santana, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, and Soriano for the top honor.

Only a handful of superstars swapped jerseys in the off-season, with pitcher Barry Zito leaving Oakland for a better deal in San Francisco, Carlos Lee signing with Houston, and Soriano with the Cubs.

Six different teams have won the last six World Series and I see this trend continuing in 2007. Anything could happen, so I’m going with the Cubs winning the NL Central and the Pirates winning the wild card as they’ll take a page out of the Penguins’ book and make the playoffs.

I’m a realist, though, and this is where their dreams end. The Los Angeles Dodgers will win the NL pennant and play the New York Yankees for the World Series title, and the Yankees will win their first World Series since 2000.